BALTIMORE — The red-zone play was called, appropriately enough, “Jump Pass,” and Coach Mike Huber would call it from the sidelines by simply raising both hands in the air, as if to signal a touchdown. He didn’t care if the opposition knew what was coming — they couldn’t defend it anyway. His Linden High quarterback would simply lob a pass into the end zone, where his 6-foot-7, 240-pound wide receiver, a kid named Aaron Judge, would inevitably rise above the masses and catch it.
“Nobody,” said Huber, who coached Judge for three years at the high school outside of Stockton, Calif., “could stop him.”
There is little doubt in the minds of anyone who saw him play football that Judge could have had a career in the NFL, if he had wanted one. He was athletic enough that Huber considered making him a quarterback at first, before deciding his size and speed would be better utilized at wide receiver, and Judge went on to break the school records in touchdown receptions and receiving yards. He was recruited by major programs including UCLA, Stanford and Notre Dame.
But Judge’s heart and head were in consensus that the sport for him was baseball — a choice that, in 2017, has altered the landscape of Major League Baseball, which has a compelling young superstar on the rise in its biggest market, and specifically the New York Yankees, who are riding Judge’s MVP-caliber season to the top of the standings in the American League East.
“I fell in love with baseball at an early age,” Judge said Tuesday in the visiting clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, seemingly filling his entire locker with a frame that, having filled out since his Linden High days, now measures 6-7 and 282. “If I had to choose one, it was always going to be baseball.”
Through Tuesday’s games, the surprising Yankees held the second-best record in the AL, at 29-19, and Judge led the majors in home runs, with 17. With perennial AL MVP favorite Mike Trout of the Angels out for at least several weeks with a torn ligament in his thumb, Judge has moved to the top of the list of candidates for the award as the season approaches its one-third mark.
“It’s impressive to watch,” Blue Jays outfielder Steve Pearce told NJ.com after Judge went 5 for 12 with three homers and six RBI during a three-game series earlier this month. “He’s a top-stepper. When he goes to the plate, you almost have to stop what you’re doing and look … I’d start him at tight end. He’s athletic. He belongs on a football field.”
Had things played out differently, and had Judge’s preferences shifted even slightly, that’s where he might have ended up. A three-sport star at Linden — where he was an all-county pick in baseball, basketball and football — he had narrowed his choices to baseball and football when the time came to choose a college. He found a handful of smaller schools that were willing to let him play both, but eventually signed a baseball scholarship to Fresno State.
Once he got to Fresno, he asked his baseball coaches about the possibility of his playing football in the fall. “They said, ‘We gave you the scholarship first,’ ” Judge recalled Tuesday. “ ‘So while you’re here, you’re ours.’ ”
The decision to choose baseball was partly a big-picture calculation that weighed factors such as length of career, long-term health and guaranteed contracts — all areas where baseball stands above football as a profession. But those factors, Judge said, were secondary to what his heart was telling him: “I saw myself as a baseball player,” he said. After passing up a chance to sign with the Oakland A’s coming out of high school, after they drafted him in the 31st round in 2010, he was picked in the supplemental first round (32nd overall) by the Yankees in 2013 and signed for a bonus of $1.8 million.
But there is a reason Judge is such an anomaly as a baseball player, why 29 other teams passed on a college prospect with once-in-a-generation power, and why people look at him now and wonder why he isn’t playing football. Position players of his size rarely last in Major League Baseball.
“You don’t see guys his size get an extended period of time in the big leagues,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said. “The list is very small.”
Although record-keeping is imprecise, it is believed Judge is one of only 11 position players in history to have stood 6-7 or taller, and only four of the previous 10 managed to last at least 200 games in the majors. The best of them was Frank “The Washington Monument” Howard, the one-time Senators slugger who belted 382 homers over a 16-year career. But while Howard also stood 6-7, Judge has almost 30 pounds on Howard, at least at a comparable point in the latter’s career.
While taller hitters can generate more torque and power through their sheer size, the obstacles are equally steep. A taller frame means a taller strike zone, and longer arms mean a tougher time hitting inside fastballs. Judge, though, rejects the notion that his size is a disadvantage.
“Everything’s the same. I’m just bigger than everybody else,” he said. “The strike zone may be taller, because I’m taller, but it’s what I’m used to. I’ve had the same strike zone since I was a kid. This is my body; this is my strike zone. I make the same adjustments everyone else does.”
Few observers were surprised when Judge struck out at an alarming rate as a minor leaguer, as well as during a 27-game call-up to the majors last August, when he K’d in exactly half of his 84 at-bats, posting a slash line of .179/.263.345.
“Strikeouts,” Cashman conceded, “were a concern.”
But practically everyone who has come in contact with Judge, from his high school days through his professional career, raves about his “makeup”: the combination of intellect, humility and drive that has allowed him to make the series of adjustments necessary to become the player he is in 2017. Last year, for example, he whiffed on 18.1 percent of his swings, double the league average, but this year he has reduced that rate to 12.2 percent — still on the high side, but more than acceptable for someone with his power. In 2016, he chased at 33.6 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone; in 2017, only 25.3 percent.
His swing is a kinetic marvel, and the power he generates is simply otherworldly. According to Statcast figures posted at baseballsavant.mlb.com, Judge’s home run off Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman on April 28 was the hardest-hit ball in the majors this season, leaving his bat at 119.4 mph. Three of his homers have measured at least 440 feet.
Once, years ago, Judge’s high school football coach sat Judge down and tried to talk him into football as a career. You could go a long way, Mike Huber told him, as any football coach might tell a player of Judge’s ability. He knew Judge was leaning toward baseball, but he wanted to be sure the kid knew what he would be walking away from.
“He just loved baseball,” Huber said. “And even though I was the football coach trying to get him to go the other way, when I’m wrong, I’ll put my hand in the air. And I’ve got my hand in the air right now.”